A last resort?
Every effort should be made so that people do not need to choose between COVID and the cold.
Winter brings increased attention to the experiences of those rough sleeping. This year will be no different, not only because of COVID-19 but also because of the rapidly increasing number of people currently sleeping on the streets. Latest figures indicate the number of people sleeping rough in London increased by a third between April and June this year; anecdotal evidence from our National Advisory Panel indicates increases across the length of England, with the trend continuing in the recent months.
A specific package of winter support was announced by Government this week, with a focus on self-contained accommodation and winter shelters as a last resort, with guidance to ‘help shelters open more safely, where not doing so would endanger lives.’
Everyone would agree that a focus on self-contained accommodation is right. But is it right that we are relying on winter night shelters, however much of a last resort they are?
The experience of winter night shelters
Many of our National Advisory Panel of people with lived experience of disadvantage have either used night shelters or have volunteered in them.
They provide immediate, temporary relief from rough sleeping in the cold for those not supported by the local authority or other services. Many wonderful people volunteer their time to support those of us experiencing rough sleeping, where other services have failed them.
“They’re good in the sense it stops people freezing to death.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“Some people will only engage with faith-based groups as they are not seen as part of the Local Authority.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“What’s good is the volunteers - you have an army of them, who will get up in the night, and will help you.” You can give a lot of people 1-1 support through this network.” Member of National Advisory Panel
However, the support provided is limited. They are a communal setting. People must be in and out. Conditions are placed around substance use. And the measure can become more permanent than intended, regretfully even offered as temporary housing solutions by local authorities.
“When I was covered in snow was the bit when I started engaging with the council! When I went in it was a horrendous experience, with some of the most challenging people in the borough, some dead now I’m sure. You had to wake up at 6:30 to get your breakfast. And then it was, ‘Where do you go in the cold?’” Member of National Advisory Panel
“I don’t think it’s suitable to put 100 people on the floor like a dog. It’s inhumane. It’s not acceptable to treat people like this.” Member of National Advisory Panel
“They force people to keep up a lifestyle that they may not want to have by offering no actual alternative except rough sleeping.” Member of National Advisory Panel
A last resort?
“Please note that [sic] is a risk of COVID-19 in night shelters. Therefore, decisions to reopen shelters must be balanced on a detailed COVID-19 risk assessment. These settings should only be used as a last resort to protect against the risk to health and life of individuals remaining on the streets when other alternative options are unavailable, for example in very cold weather.” Guidance: COVID-19: provision of night shelters
“How are they going to work when you can’t mix with people?” Member of National Advisory Panel
With COVID-19, the limitations of this form of support are brought into stark view. If Winter Shelters are dangerous, what will happen to those with No Recourse to Public Funds? And crucially, how will local areas that frequently gate-keep access to accommodation during the non-Winter months, and then utilise Winter Shelters during the cold months interpret ‘a last resort?’
“I think about half the people in the COVID hotels (at least in London) are migrants with limited or No Recourse. These are not people entitled to help under the law or entitled to benefits. Do we think the shelters fill a gap there? If not what happens to those people?” Member of National Advisory Panel
“The rest of the year you’ve been doing all you can to avoid accommodating people!” Member of National Advisory Panel
‘…when other alternative options are unavailable.’
Over the last seven months there has been a concerted effort from many to accommodate people through the Everybody In scheme. According to figures from the Lancet, “266 deaths were avoided during the first wave of the pandemic among England’s homeless population, as well as 21,092 infections, 1,164 hospital admissions and 338 admissions to Intensive Care Units.”
There could not be a higher incentive to honestly explore alternative options that will work. We have consistently called for options that are made through listening to individuals, offering appropriate choice, and meeting people’s aspirations. Legislation requires this, and pathways should embed this approach. And it is an approach for all year round, including times deemed to be crisis times.
“Need to look at what do people want – and how can we go from there? Not what the local authority thinks it can provide.” Member of National Advisory Panel
Acknowledgment of the imperative should help drive innovative thinking for what can be done. Empty buildings and office spaces should be considered. Hotels and dormitory style buildings considered. This thinking was welcome during the Summer months, and it is crucial now.
“Looking outside the box for stock – incentives for landlords, buildings that aren’t used, suspending certain taxes. How do we get the properties? How do we get the stock? What incentives are we going to have?” Member of National Advisory Panel
“Service providers could engage with local housing associations (in particular) older person provision to highlight and rent empty properties that can be temporarily used to house rough sleepers, they can have open access lounge.” Member of National Advisory Panel
The actions of national and local government, the homelessness sector and faith and voluntary organisations over the next few months will be critical for the lives of those of us experiencing rough sleeping. We urge national and local government to explore all opportunities to gain adequate accommodation and support for all people rough sleeping so that they do not have to risk their lives accessing winter provision
 £10 million Cold Weather Fund ‘to support councils get rough sleepers off the streets during the winter by helping them to provide more self-contained accommodation,’ and ‘an additional £2 million for faith and community groups to help them provide secure accommodation for rough sleepers.’